Jan Svenungsson

Wilson, Mick. "Dear reader: of private and public writing",
ArtMonitor – a Journal of Artistic Research, # 8 / 2010

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In being invited to talk to you at the Art Text conference about 'the roles of writing in artistic research and in artistic work and artistic development – essay writing, literary writing, poetics, documentation, the journal kept over time etc.' I was very conscious of someone having already done a much better job on this topic than I ever could. For Jan Svenungsson, who will be known to many of you, has written a wonderful book, concise, full of ideas, and careful and original thinking on artists writing – An Artist' Text Book, published by KUVA in Helsinki. I was fortunate enough to hear Jan Svenungsson speak in Dublin in May last year about this book and Professor Jan Kaila from KUVA generously gave me a copy of the book to read. The book is an example in itself of what the book discusses: the way artists' writing can operate with an openness and freedom that academic disciplines – such as art history – can sometimes seem to stymie or curb. The book is direct, frank, concise, elegant, learned and generous to its readers. I might even risk saying that it is really a romance novel: it is an artist writing about his love affair with a text, another artist's writing – De Chirico's Hebdomeros. And this love affair, this book is a very hard act to follow. So not knowing how I could improve upon this work, I decided to try to begin from one idea in the book and attend closely to that idea – the idea is about how to start writing when you are uncertain where to begin. Jan describes a simple technique to start writing and to avoid getting stuck. Here's what Jan writes ...

Start by reading all the background material available and making notes of what you find interesting. During this reading period, your mind will automatically start to focus on the problems at hand, and without your having to think hard about it, preliminary versions of ideas (good or bad) will appear in your mind – these should all be noted down. When the reading period comes to an end, its time to sit down with your computer (I favour sitting comfortably on a bed with my laptop computer and reference material spread Out all around me) and try, in as concentrated a way as you can, to just pour out as much writing as possible which has some connection with the theme at hand. [ ... ] The text will be full of repetitions. There will be lots of trash. Half-baked thoughts, stupid ideas, embarrassing opinions. Its not a problem! Nobody but you will read this version of the text. [ ... ] Have a break (an hour, a day, a week). Go for a walk [ ... ] Return to your text with good eyes.

Reading this advice, I was struck by this idea of a writing that no-one else but you will read – but also by this image of a writer sitting on a bed, surrounded by his own stuff, his notes and reference material gathered around him. Equally striking was the idea of a delay, a temporal displacement: You write something, you take a break and you come back, read it again and end up reading it differently from when you first wrote it. It is interesting to consider what is changing here from one reading to another?
Jan describes a very particular type of private writing - but also a writing that is read differently by the same person. He elegantly rehearses the strange choreography of 'private-ness' and 'public-ness' at play in writing. This work of reading, writing, rereading, and re-writing over time moves from a private space to a public space. Another aspect of this advice that struck me was the proposition that you read all you can on a particular subject or topic. This movement from writings that circulate, and that you can gain access to readily, towards a moment of withdrawal into private space - the bedroom - private writing and private reading and private re-reading and re-writing - is followed by a further return to the circuit of writings, writings that circulate in the world beyond the bedroom. And so it was by reading Jan's book, about artists and writing and the artist's text, I came up with my title and so was able to respond to the invitation. ( ... )

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Indeed, the premise of An Artist's Text Book is in part the difficulty that writing presents to even comfortable writers by the task of writing for art school, for university, for academic purposes. This book is offering help to overcome a difficulty that writing presents in academic settings, difficulty even for comfortable writers. This anxiety and even frustration with the task of writing is very widespread among those engaged in arts research. So much so that I would like to use some anecdotal material to open up this theme of anxiety and writing a little more, even as it applies beyond the field of artistic research. ( ... )

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This brings me back to jan Svenungsson's book and the questions that he asks right at the outset of the book: "Are there characteristics common to texts by visual artists? – Are there any special writing qualities they are more likely to achieve?" What his book does is look closely at a range of texts that come from artist-writers who comprise a different kind of canon than the one's cited above. This is a very important consideration. Several times, Jan makes a distinction berween art history writing and artists' writing. He presents artists' writings as not being bounded in the same way as conventional humanities academic scholarship. Discussing the writing of the artist Mike Kelley he asserts:

One difference between what we have here and what we would have had if an art historian had written this text is that Kelley (while being very precise and academic) remains unbounded. He can jump whenever he feels like like it, because in the end he has the freedom the art historian cannot claim in quite the same way.

Jan later describes the – many rules which are never questioned – in the Humanities asserting that:

For a scientist or scholar to break the rules which guide how one's work is to be communicated and defined could be a dangerous act. Then consider that the breaking of rules is what is expected from artists in the contemporary situation.

Jan's claims, in the context of the specific texts he examines, are compelling. He connects this freedom to move across bounds with the established expectation that artists will break rules – they will transgress. But I am a little uneasy here. I think that many disciplines and practices would want to claim a similar privilege for themselves: philosophy, literature, ethnography, cultural studies, psychoanalytic criticism, theology, history and so forth. I wonder if the impulse to say we are special, we have special ways of doing things, we have an especial gift of autonomy and boundlessness might not be counter productive.

What if we were to forge alliances across disciplines – and to connect what we do with aspects of a critical and creative humanities writing? Not to blend ourselves in with this spectrum of disciplines but to make common cause in trying to create a different kind of academy that is not the august self-serving, self-important, conservative institution that demands respect – but the dynamic, mobile, playful, thoughtful, inventive, contested space of enquiry about the world and our different worlds that rub up against each other in this world?

This seems very abstract and idealistic I am sure – but as a first step, we might not abandon the sense that art making and art writing are different, but rather we might simply not make this the fundamental, absolute or essential difference. Maybe arts researchers can use many different modes of writing simultaneously. And maybe we can navigate a way through large corp uses of writing – such as the various literatures on writing and subjectiviry – without mastering those writings, but at the same time without superficially attending and effectively neglecting the work that others have done. Isn't this a key skill for advanced study in anything: the ability to work with large diverse bodies of material and begin to make a provisional way through the material? Jan Svenungsson does this brilliantly in his book as he constructs a provisional typology of artists writing. ( ... )

Mick Wilson